A review of Scott Hendrix’s Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction.
This is a great addition to OUP’s “Very Short Introductions” series of books, which manages to pack a huge amount of fascinating and useful material into just over a hundred small pages. It even manages some very nice black and white pictures, index, glossary, and seven pages of further reading suggestions.
Hendrix handles the history well, and gives a very readable glimpse into Luther’s spiritual ancestors. He also has an accurate assessment of the Reformer’s impact in various places, writing that “Calvinism was more influential than Lutheranism on the Reformation in England.” Luther is not seen as the sole cause of the Reformation (as if it were all “by Luther alone”) though he is given his rightful place of honour as pioneer, and as theologian, Bible translator, liturgist, hymn-writer, preacher, and institutional leader. The author is clearly aware of a vast amount of scholarly discussion and secondary literature on Luther and has an enviable ability to summarise and critique it in short compass, and he does a good job of helping us appreciate the historical distance between us and Luther.
Hendrix is a more than competent Luther scholar, and is usually insightful and clear in his judgments here. Occasionally there are some tendentious appropriations of Luther for a modern agenda he would not recognise, and I would have liked more of his theology to shine through. At the very end of the book, however, there is a particularly jarring note, which strikes me as not being especially faithful to the subject. He writes, “The best parts of Luther’s legacy may be his eschewal of fundamentalism and his insistence that religion is not a way to appease the gods and gain their favour — but a constant reminder to place the world and its needs above selfish desires.”
I’m not sure Luther would recognise such a this-worldly summary of his thought or be pleased if this were indeed his greatest legacy. As for his supposed “eschewal of fundamentalism” it all depends on what fundamentalism means of course, and Hendrix thinks Luther did not recognise Scripture as his chief authority per se as other Protestants did. Whatever the accuracy of that assessment, and it appears somewhat dubious to me, it is certain that in today’s ecclesiastical climate Luther would find more of a home amongst the inerrantist, “Bible-bashing,” supernaturalist, heaven and hell fundamentalists of this world than he would amongst the urbane intellectual élites of the global North pushing ecumenism, homosexuality, and feminism. Indeed, we can be sure that he would have some harsh and probably unprintably coarse words to say regarding the latter!
This review was first published in Churchman 127/4 (2013).